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Women and Equalities

Volume 540: debated on Thursday 23 February 2012

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Economy

1. What recent assessment she has made of the contribution of women to the economy; and if she will make a statement. (95935)

Women’s role in the economy is obviously very important. Making better use of women’s skills is good for the economy and good for women. That is why we are introducing universal credit to help to make work pay—including an extra £300 million for child care. We are also supporting women’s enterprise, encouraging greater transparency on gender equality, and working with business to ensure that more women reach the boardrooms of our leading companies.

From the Minister’s answer, one would not realise that since she has been in that role of women’s unemployment has risen by 27%. Given that the majority of retail workers are women, and that retail companies are now reducing the hours that they offer to paid workers and substituting them with unpaid workers, what conversations has she had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on protecting women in the retail sector?

First, I must tell the hon. Lady that there are tens of thousands more women in employment today than there were when her party left government in 2010. On the issue of retailers, we have an excellent work experience scheme that is giving young people very good opportunities for work experience, on a voluntary basis, which will help them to get into the workplace. I think that it is time for the hon. Lady to stop talking retailers down. A career in retailing can be an extremely good career. There are many people at the top of retailing who started their working life on the shop floor, and retailers have often led the way in providing flexible working opportunities for women.

According to the Department’s own figures, women have the lowest representation among engineering professionals, information and communication technology professionals, architects, town planners and surveyors. What is being done to tackle that issue?

My hon. Friend raises an extremely valid point. I have always had a particular bee in my bonnet about encouraging women to take up careers in engineering. We are trying to ensure that women are given proper information about such opportunities, by refocusing and recasting the careers advice that is given to young people and, indeed, to people of all ages throughout their careers. In that way, we want to open up opportunities to young people, including young women, so that they do not feel that they are simply being pushed down what one might call the traditional, stereotyped routes.

This week I was contacted about a mother who is working 22 hours in a local shop. She cannot get the extra regular hours she wants, although she has tried hard—she cannot find alternative work, but at least she has a job, is contributing to the economy and is supporting her family. Her husband has lost his job and is struggling to get a new one because he has had a stroke. In six weeks’ time the Government will take away the working tax credit from her family, and they could lose over £3,000. They will not be able to pay their mortgage; they will be better off if she gives up work; they will be better off if the family splits up. This is going to happen in April. Does the Home Secretary support this policy, which will hit thousands of working women, and what advice would she give to that mother now?

The right hon. Lady raises a very particular case, but the issue is about the welfare—[Interruption.] Perhaps Opposition Members could wait for me to finish my sentence before they try to interrupt. The right hon. Lady has raised a particular case, but the issue is about welfare reform and the particular welfare reforms that this Government are putting through. I know that the Opposition find it difficult to decide where they position themselves on welfare reform, but it is necessary for us to reform the welfare system. Crucially, what we will do—and it will be of benefit to women—is introduce the universal credit, which will make work pay. I applaud people who want to get into the workplace in order to provide for themselves and their families, so it is important to ensure that the benefit system makes work pay. That is why we are introducing universal credit and making it easier under it for people to work fewer than 16 hours and still have access to child care support.

Female Genital Mutilation

2. What steps the Government are taking to identify and safeguard girls at risk of being taken out of the UK to undergo female genital mutilation. (95936)

I thank and commend my hon. Friend for her work on this subject, and congratulate her on her effective leadership of the all-party parliamentary group on female genital mutilation. The Government’s approach to ending female genital mutilation is set out in our “Call to End Violence Against Women and Girls”. We have published guidance for all front-line professions; we are raising awareness among children; and we are supporting front-line practitioners.

I thank the Minister for her response and for her support for the all-party group. Will she urge officials, particularly those working on the UK’s borders, to play their full part in enforcing the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003?

UK border staff already play an important role in our strategy to prevent FGM. As I indicated, we have already produced the guidelines; I will undertake to make sure that the relevant staff read them.

Is not statutory personal, social, health and economic education in schools an important way of equipping our young women to know what their rights are in this area?

I believe the hon. Lady asked me about PSHE at the last parliamentary questions. PSHE exists for a number of reasons and it is under review by the Department for Education. We are raising children’s awareness of these issues and we jointly produced a film, which is being distributed.

Disability Hate Crimes

No one should fear abuse for who they are, and tackling hate crime against disabled people is an issue that this Government take very seriously. We are improving the recording of such crimes, and working with the voluntary partners to encourage more victims to come forward. We will publish the Government’s new action plan on hate crime shortly.

I thank my hon. Friend for her answer, but what specific measures are the Government taking to encourage victims to come forward so that we can finally stamp out this atrocious crime?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to want to know the specifics, as under-reporting is a real concern in this area. That is why we continue to work with the police and the voluntary sector, including with organisations such as Radar, which has designed initiatives to increase the reporting of hate crime through third-party reporting organisations. I urge my hon. Friend and other hon. Members to take this opportunity to look at the guidance on hate crime that we issued yesterday to see how they can help to drive awareness of this issue in their own constituencies.

The Minister will be aware that the recent report from the Work and Pensions Select Committee on the transition from disability living allowance to personal independence payment has made it clear yet again that some statements made by the Department have themselves encouraged a negative view of people with disabilities. What steps is she taking to ensure that anything coming out from the Department cannot be misinterpreted in that way?

I agree with the hon. Lady. Anything that fuels hostility or harassment is absolutely unacceptable. I believe that for too long the benefits system itself has trapped people in a life of welfare dependency, and that if we are to tackle this issue effectively, it must be subjected to a radical overhaul. Perhaps it is those who are reluctant to accept such a change in the benefits system, which has trapped 5 million people on out-of-work benefits, who are standing in the way of what is needed.

Is the Minister aware that according to the findings of research conducted by the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, published in The Independent yesterday, 80% of young disabled people do not believe that the police will act on their concerns about disability hate crime? Will she undertake to talk to the Home Secretary about the matter, to ensure that police authorities and, soon, elected police and crime commissioners take the matter seriously?

My hon. Friend is right: that is an excellent piece of research. We are focusing on helping voluntary sector partners, including Radar to do more to enable disabled people to report to third sector organisations so that they can gain the access to justice that they need.

Unemployment

The Government are helping women to move into employment, including self-employment, through the Work programme and our business mentoring scheme. We are also improving careers advice and training, and encouraging more women to enter apprenticeships. The action that we are taking to increase flexibility in the workplace and to support child care costs will help to provide more opportunities for women.

As the Minister will know, women contribute significantly to the employment base in my constituency, but there are serious problems on the horizon, first as a result of lost local government jobs and secondly because of the hugely increasing demand for, and cost of, child care. What will the Government do about those serious problems?

The hon. Gentleman has raised some important points. Yes, it can be very difficult for women in the workplace at present, although, as we heard earlier, there are 50,000 more women in work than there were a year ago.

Child care can present a significant barrier to a return to employment. We will be spending some £300 million under the universal credit scheme to give more women who are working shorter hours access to child care, and, as already been announced, we are increasing early years education funding to some £760 million to give all three-to-four-year-olds 15 hours of education a week. Those are some practical measures that we are taking to help the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, and other women throughout the country, to return to work.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the specific difficulties of women who want to return to work after having a family? What help are we giving such women, particularly those who wish to work part time for a period?

My hon. Friend is right: it can be difficult for women to return to the workplace. Programmes such as the Work programme can make a real difference by ensuring that women, and indeed anyone who wants to return to work, have the skills that will get them jobs. The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), is extending the work experience scheme so that women have a solid foundation of experience to include in their CVs, which will help them to obtain work in the long term.

The Olympic Delivery Authority has set an excellent example by securing construction jobs on the Olympics site for more than 1,000 women. What lessons will the Minister take from that in terms of using Government procurement to ensure that women have a fair chance of obtaining jobs, and better-paid jobs?

We need to ensure that women have broad horizons when it comes to obtaining jobs in, for instance, engineering and construction. Through programmes such as the Work programme, we can give people opportunities to gain experience that can make a real difference to their ability to secure jobs, because they can bring that experience into play during job interviews.

Income Tax

The Government are committed to supporting working women. We have increased the personal income tax allowance in successive Budgets, so that anyone earning below £8,105 in 2012-13 will pay no income tax whatsoever. Those changes will take 1.1 million low-income people out of tax altogether, and more than half of them will be women.

I strongly support the coalition Government policy of raising the tax threshold to help people on low and middle incomes, which, of course, particularly helps women, who are more likely to work part-time. Would not more women benefit if the Government went further and faster towards raising the threshold to £10,000, and will my right hon. Friend encourage her Treasury colleagues to make that a priority in the forthcoming Budget?

My hon. Friend is tempting me to go down a route that would be straying on to the role of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Decisions on the way in which we will achieve that coalition commitment will be taken in future Budgets.

Domestic and Family Violence

The Government’s approach to tackling domestic and family violence is set out in our strategy to end violence against women and girls and the supporting action plan. This action plan includes 88 different actions for a wide range of Government Departments and our external partners, many of which have already been delivered. A refreshed action plan will be published on 8 March 2012.

A recent report by Professor Sylvia Walby shows that Women’s Aid is daily having to turn away almost one in 10 women seeking refuge because of the substantial cuts in national budgets. Warm words achieve nothing. What is the Minister going to do about this?

The hon. Gentleman raises an issue that has been raised before. The Supporting People budget is £6.5 billion. It is the largest budget and it has been cut by only 1%, so if Women’s Aid is facing a bigger cut, local authorities need to hear loud and clear what the Home Secretary and I have said. We have ring-fenced £28 million of central funding to send out a loud and clear message to local authorities not to cut funding. Furthermore, the national helplines are still being funded by central Government.

Honour-based violence is linked to domestic violence, and I am sure the Minister is aware of a recent report stating that there were more than 2,800 incidents of honour-based violence in our country last year. What steps are we taking to deal with this horrendous practice?

The Government condemn this awful practice. We are committed to tackling honour-based violence and the action plan to end violence against women and girls sets out our approach. It includes working with partners to identify what more can be done. Next week I will be in New York to attend the commission on the status of women, where I will speak on forced marriage for Plan UK.

Aylesbury women’s centre is closing its domestic violence service; two out of six of the Imkaan refuges that provide specialist help for black and minority ethnic women are closing; Trafford Women’s Aid is losing half its council funding for the refuge; Devon domestic violence and abuse services are losing half their staff; in Northumbria, the counselling service, paid for by the police, at the sexual assault referral centre has been stopped; and our women’s safety commission has found countless examples across the country of services that protect women being disproportionately hit, putting women’s safety at risk. The Government cannot palm the blame on to local authorities. Will the Minister take her responsibility for women’s safety seriously and urgently conduct a national audit of the support available for women and girls at risk of violence, to make sure their protection is not being removed?

If we were not dealing with the greatest deficit in peacetime Britain, we may not have had to do anything. As I said to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello), the Supporting People budget of £6.5 billion has been cut by only 1%. The matters the hon. Lady raises are local matters and we have made the situation perfectly clear and sent out a message to local government not to make the voluntary sector a soft target. When the hon. Lady publishes her report, I trust she will send it to all local authorities.